Somewhere deep in their hearts, most film school graduates harbour a vision of the successful filmmaker's life. A life spent writing, taking meetings, calling 'action' on set, going to festivals and premieres, and enjoying life. Then they graduate, and they start PAing. Reality quickly overtakes fantasy.
Here are a few tips and tricks that will help you get over those first few months or years.
Graduate from PA school ASAP. Being a successful PA means you'll be hired again - as a PA. But unless you want to climb the production department ladder leading to AD work, look for other opportunities. Make nice with the head of a department you want to work in, shoot your own project on your off days, or work for free in a higher position.
Your first few jobs will be unpaid. For better or worse, this is part of paying your dues. So you'll have to make some lifestyle concessions. I lived with roommates for several years in cheap apartments, and took on non-film jobs in-between shoots.
Obey the chain of command. Film school crews are usually loosely structured. However, most crews - even micro-budget ones - are very hierarchical. If you're given an order, you can (usually) ask for clarification but you can't not do it. Obviously, if you're being asked to drive and you don't have a license, say something.
Be busy. Don't be the guy that makes the producer ask me 'why did we hire all these PAs, they're just sitting around all day.' I know I just sent you on a brutal run earlier. But the producer doesn't. If you don't have something to do, ask your immediate boss if there's something you can help out with. Tape up your petty cash receipts. Fill up the tank on the 15-pass.
There's a word for everything. On the first TV show I PAed the 2nd 2nd AD told me to get a mafer clamp for the gaffer. I hopped into the truck and realized I had no idea what one looked like. Fortunately, the best boy grip took pity on me and pointed it out. Don't be afraid to ask.
The work isn't steady. You may work for six months, then sit by the phone for two. Save your money, keep your spending down, get a temporary gig. Diversify - I used to bounce between line producing tiny-budget features and working as PA or electric on larger projects.
Don't keep big things to yourself. I'd rather know now that you got into a fender bender. I may be mad but I'll get over it. What I won't get over is finding out one month and several hundred dollars of penalties later.
Please don't break your walkie. They're horribly expensive.
Take care of yourself. Don't skip meals or sleep. Dress warmly. Put on sunscreen. Drink water.
Don't run unless you're asked to. This creates tension on set and puts you and others at risk.
Keep your paperwork - callsheet, deal memo, paystubs. When applying to the DGA or a union, these are proof of your hours worked in the field.
Be on time.